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VOL. 128 | NO. 214 | Friday, November 01, 2013

Council Rules

Ad hoc committee explores City Council procedures

By Bill Dries

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Three Memphis City Council members continue to look at the council’s rules of procedure and how those rules are enforced as the council prepares for the annual election of a new chairman for the new year.

City Council member Janis Fullilove is at the center of a larger council look at its rules of procedure. Fullilove’s vocal opposition to Smart Meters is one of several factors that prompted creation of an ad hoc committee. 

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

Council Chairman Edmund Ford Jr. appointed the ad hoc committee – Wanda Halbert, Bill Boyd and Myron Lowery – after sounding what amounted to a political warning shot in October that the body of 13 was stretching the rules too far on several fronts.

That included council members recording their votes on a matter well after the vote was taken and the results announced – a straightforward violation of rules that would have specific legal implications if someone on the losing end of a vote decided to take the matter to court.

It also included something not as clear-cut – the way council members conduct themselves and debate legitimate issues during committee sessions.

The committee meetings, held the same day as the twice-a-month sessions of the full council, are where much of the body’s rhetorical and political heavy-lifting is done. That’s not to say there aren’t matters that are fully debated in committee and then debated even more at the full council session.

Applying the existing rules isn’t as simple as it sounds in those cases.

Council member Shea Flinn acknowledged that several times he has “made up” rules just to see if anyone would challenge them.

Council member Wanda Halbert, who is chairwoman of the ad hoc committee, wants the council rules to serve the purpose of keeping the formation of council coalitions and the gathering of council votes for or against a proposal more in the open.

“Sometimes you can look in this council room and you can count votes,” she said. “Sometimes you can come in this room and there are people who have already talked about some issues that all of us haven’t talked about. And that’s kind of scary.”

She’s also expressed concern about council members getting documents at the same time they become available to the media, and then, by the time she has a chance to look them over, have already been reported by media outlets.

The two problems demonstrate how the state’s open meetings law can be a double-edged sword. In an age when enforcement is even more difficult, council members communicate via text messages on their personal mobile devices, even as they sit next to each other at the same meeting. While most council documents are available to the media at the same time that council members see them, there are times when a last-minute proposal surfaces and has enough votes to find a place on the council’s agenda in short order.

Council member Bill Morrison, who was chairman before Ford, had a strict policy that the council would not accept such additions or approve “same night minutes” – the approval of one item in the minutes at the same meeting at which the item was approved to make it final.

But even under Morrison, seven votes by council members to overrule the chair could reverse the rule temporarily, though that didn’t happen often.

When Ford established the ad hoc committee, he didn’t name names of council members he had in mind for bending or breaking rules.

But his concern about council members who regularly complain of “corruption” as a motive for proposals they oppose is consistent with remarks council member Joe Brown has made frequently.

Brown, who isn’t on the ad hoc committee and wasn’t at the Oct. 15 executive session at which Ford brought the issue to a head, hasn’t hesitated to point up what he sees as the central challenge to limiting the comments of a council member.

Unless it involved physical contact, Brown argued, it is permissible.

“You’re not my boss,” Brown said in general. “I don’t have a boss. I’m elected – with 79 percent of the vote.”

Ford didn’t argue the point with Brown. But he firmly stated the council has a set of rules amended nearly two dozen times over the years and a chairman to ensure the council is able to debate items and make decisions on those items as well as get briefings on the city’s business.

Once council rule that is enforced frequently is the time limit on council members during debates and the limit of speaking twice on a specific matter or motion.

Ford’s concerns about a council member directing or pressuring an administration appointee to take certain actions came the same day that council member Janis Fullilove grilled Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division President Jerry Collins in the MLGW committee she chairs.

Fullilove continues to challenge Collins on the utility’s expansion of the use of Smart Meters, a proposal she managed to delay over several council meetings through her committee but which the full council ultimately approved in August.

Fullilove’s blunt and pointed questions and comments have been a regular feature of the MLGW council committee through several different chairmen, including Brown and former council member Carol Chumney.

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